As fingers begin pointing at Baltimore city mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for her response to the unrest in her city, Larry Gibson wants them to know it could have been so much worse.
A politically active Baltimore native and University of Maryland law professor, Gibson lived through the 1968 riots after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. And he firmly praises Rawlings-Blake for exactly what has lately made her a target of criticism, including by Maryland’s governor: Her relatively muted initial response to protests over Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.
“At least this time, the law enforcement people did not overreact,” Gibson said, comparing it to 1968, when six people were killed and over 700 injured. “They did not exacerbate the violence. Nobody’s been killed. There have been no shootings. I watched her and the police take a posture of containment and not escalating.”
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Rawlings-Blake – who has deep roots in the city and long been considered a rising star in the Democratic party – may have had a more recent police response in mind when she held off on requesting assistance from the National Guard until Monday.
“People don’t want their military equipment being used on them when they’re just voicing their opinion. So you have to be very careful,” she said last August as a guest on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” The topic was the police response to protests in Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown. Rawlings-Blake offered her own city’s response to the Occupy Baltimore movement as a counterexample. “We were very judicious in the use of force,” she said. “You have to be. You don’t get do-overs with things like that.”
In recent days, some have wished the mayor had a “do-over.” Critics largely on the right have seized on her words that she “gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.” (She maintains she meant that rioters exploited the space intended for protesters.) Rawlings-Blake has been accused of being too passive in the police response.
Other critics, mostly those focused on police brutality, have noted her prior veto of a body camera bill – she appointed a working group that took several months to study it, but says she supports the move – and were outraged at the mayor’s use of the racially loaded word “thugs” on Monday. On Wednesday, she tweeted she had misspoken in “frustration and anger” but stopped short of an apology. A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake did not respond to an interview request Wednesday morning.
At the root of much of this criticism, Maryland observers say, is something long considered an asset: Rawlings-Blake’s calm political temperament. In 2010, just before then-city council president Rawlings-Blake replaced a mayor who resigned under cloud of corruption, the Baltimore Sun called her “the No-Drama Queen, and that should suit everyone around here just fine.”
In the current crisis, that style of leadership – the “quieter type,” is how political columnist Barry Rascovar described it – is a harder sell, particularly when there is property destruction. “She’s an attorney, and she talks like an attorney, qualifying things, and doesn’t lose her temper,” Rascovar said. He added, “She’s run a solid government but not a flashy government.”
Calling herself a “Baltimore girl through and through,” the 45-year-old Rawlings-Blake is only one of two black female mayors among the 100 largest cities in the country. She serves as the secretary of the Democratic National Committee and the vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, both of which have given her a national platform. But locals knew her first as the daughter of Howard “Pete” Rawlings’ daughter, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee for many years. Rawlings-Blakes’ mother was one of the first black women to graduate from medical school at the University of Maryland. Rawlings-Blake graduated from an all-girls public high school in Baltimore, attended Oberlin and then earned a law degree at the University of Maryland.
As a council member, Rawlings-Blake built an alliance with councilman, later mayor and governor, Martin O’Malley. She spearheaded the first-ever legislation requiring so-called Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which seek to dissuade women from having abortions, to disclose whether they actually provided the service.
The resignation of Mayor Sheila Dixon (who was convicted of stealing gift cards meant for low-income kids) elevated Rawlings-Blake from city-council president to mayor, but she was re-elected to her own full term with 87% of the vote. Rawlings-Blake has inherited her share of challenges. Baltimore, like other post-industrial cities, ”has experienced a significant decline in manufacturing in recent decades, a concomitant loss in jobs, a significant increase in blighted buildings and loss of population,” according to a 2013 multi-city study by George Mason University. “But what sets Baltimore apart is this: the city has not experienced a financial emergency … Despite these challenges, the city is on reasonably solid financial footing.”
Some of the credit goes to Rawlings-Blake’s five years in office, under which the city’s credit rating has risen to AA. Roy Meyers, a political professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who specializes in the budget process, told msnbc, “I think you will find it you call around to people who work on the budget, she has a very good rep and is well respected,” he said.
The mayor has also tried to shore up the city’s image. She rebranded the public-access channel as “CharmTV,” with the programming moving away from government meetings to a celebration of Baltimore as a “quirky, edgy and fun place.”
But simmering tensions over police brutality and how to respond to protests that have occasionally turned violent threaten to overwhelm such efforts. Rawlings-Blake has pointed out in her own defense that she went to Annapolis, the state capital, with two police reform bills, one that would have created a felony “misconduct in office” charge for police and another that would have limited appeals for officers disciplined for such misconduct. Both bills died in committee earlier this month. In January, she testified at a public session of Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing on the topic of “building trust and legitimacy between police and the communities they serve.”
Rawlings-Blake has also noted that citizen complaints of excessive police force have declined 46 percent and police discourtesy complaints are down 53% since 2012.
In 2002, Rawlings-Blake opened her front door to find her brother covered in blood, nearly decapitated by a sword in a carjacking in front of her house. The Rawlingses had grown up comfortably and relatively insulated from crime. Rawlings-Blake was the youngest person ever elected to the city council, running just out of law school as she worked as a criminal defense attorney.
After her brother was attacked, “I wasn’t going to turn my neighborhood over to a couple of kids who came out to do harm,” Rawlings-Blake said later. She added, “There are too many people who have invested too much in the community to give up.”
Rawlings-Blake saw another lesson in what happened to her brother. “After the attack, he told me that as a black man he felt really bad when he hesitated to get out of his car and looked at the two black young men, both under 16, with suspicion, immediately thinking, ‘They must be up to no good,’” she said in her 2015 State of the City address in March. She soon convened a forum, which she said was partly inspired by President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, and which her chosen host, Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, said would be “addressing head-on the issue of black-on-black homicide.”
“We show anger over police misconduct, but far too often, we ignore something that should prompt just as much outrage,” Rawlings Blake said in her State of the City Address.
Despite her closeness to O’Malley, now a presidential hopeful, Rawlings-Blake has distanced herself from his numbers-driven, broken-windows approach to crime fighting. She and Police Commissioner Anthony Batt invited the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to do a “collaborative review” of the department’s practices.
It is widely believed in Baltimore that O’Malley would never have been elected without the surprise support of Pete Rawlings, about whom the word “kingmaker” was often used. Rawlings abruptly withdrew his support for a black mayoral candidate in 1999 to support O’Malley, who needed the support of black voters to win. According to a 2008 profile of Rawlings-Blake in Baltimore Magazine, it was Rawlings’ daughter Stephanie, then serving with O’Malley on the city council, who convinced him O’Malley was the man for the job.
According to Rawlings-Blake herself, a character in the celebrated HBO show “The Wire” was based on her father. (She never got into the show herself.) On that show, the young, ambitious white mayor transparently based on O’Malley beats the odds by getting the endorsement of state delegate Odell Watkins, a respected legislator who is arguably the only politician on the show who show much integrity. Another character, the city council president who is waiting for the mayor to run for governor so she can get her turn, is supposedly based on Rawling-Blake’s predecessor Dixon.